Prejudice in Academia

The repercussions of young students associating education with discrimination are enormous, and play a critical role in their later lives.

By Madeleine Ngo, University of Florida


Although the classroom has traditionally been viewed as a place where students should be open-minded and encouraged to express their perspectives, many minorities often feel alienated in school systems due to the plague of institutionalized racism.

The feeling of isolation stems from a lack of racial discussion and discriminatory stereotypes perpetuated by their peers. Many educators and school boards across the country have refused to integrate race-based courses into the classroom, arguing they incite anti-white sentiment.

However, the effects of racism in academia reach far beyond high school or college. The achievement gap is typically recognized as the performance difference between whites and minorities, especially African American and Hispanic students, on standardized tests scores, dropout rates and grades.

To Combat Racism, Start with the School System

Integrated classroom in 1957 (Image via Take Part)

According to “The Nation,” Emma K. Adam, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, has found that Latino and black students have made substantial progress since the 1970s, yet they still generally lag two to three grades behind their white classmates.

Lack of opportunity to succeed in school often leads to lifetime effects, such as income disparity and job prospects. Although progress is being made as a society, minorities are still clearly at a disadvantage compared to their white peers.

Throughout a “New Yorker” article titled “MFA vs POC,” acclaimed author Junot Diaz illustrates his isolation as a Latino-American in the MFA program at Cornell University. Diaz vividly describes how race was hardly ever addressed through students’ writing. He recalls his white classmates making offensive remarks when the topic of race was addressed. Diaz said, “I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not, in other words, include me.”

The lack of diversity and the inability to freely discuss race causes minorities, much like Diaz, to feel as if their story and perspectives don’t matter. How is America supposed to be a nation built on diversity and multiculturalism if Americans allow racism to spread throughout school systems?

A person’s race is a part of them; it’s who they are, and race represents years of historical background and cultural traditions. By refusing to discuss race, students of color are essentially unable to express their lives and stories.

Many minorities find themselves changing their identity, striving to achieve white culture to “fit in.” Students of color often change their outer appearance and attitudes at school since they believe they’ll be viewed differently if they don’t.

In a video series titled “Voices” by NBC Asian America, several Asian Americans are asked if they’ve ever had a “lunchbox moment.” The phrase refers to a moment when Asian Americans are ridiculed by their peers for the unconventional, culturally-diverse food their parents pack for their lunch. Without further explanation, the individuals know exactly what the interviewer is referring to.

One of the individuals said, “In some ways it made me feel a little bit like an outsider because I did not have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” The other interviewees reflect on their experience, recalling that they were discouraged from bringing their cultural food to school because they were afraid of what their classmates would say.

Although the “lunchbox moment” is a minor example of institutionalized racism in school systems, it’s one that resonates with many minorities, including myself. Small instances have lasting impacts. Instances like the “lunchbox moment” make students afraid to embrace their cultural background and who they are. A person’s culture is something an individual should be proud of, not ashamed or embarrassed by.

Despite academic research and articles supporting the existence of institutionalized racism, discrimination continues to persist. Racism in academia is primarily the result of teachers and educators striving to preserve an unbiased, colorblind environment. Although the concept may initially appear to be beneficial for students of color, the implementation consistently results in classrooms lacking discussion of cultural differences.

White students are easily given the opportunity to learn more about their cultural history, yet minorities are deprived of it. If students are restricted from learning about their own cultural history, how will they effectively formulate their own perspectives and beliefs? Ignoring the issue is simply not the same as acknowledging and taking action to resolve it.

Since September 2014, minorities constituted the majority of K-12 students in the United States. Especially in today’s society, people must recognize race as a powerful, and too often, divisive force. However, each individual has a choice; Americans must not allow institutionalized racism to plague school systems. Each student has a cultural background that should be celebrated, not used as a tool to discriminate against one another.

Opponents of institutionalized racism may claim not all students of color are victims; often, students find the courage to succeed and not let social constructs dictate their lives. There are numerous minorities who find success despite barriers, ranging from Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to the first African-American president, Barack Obama. Diaz himself became a world-renowned author, worked at two MFA programs and created his own writing workshop that helps promote the discussion of race.

While there are many silver linings, American society is not “post-racial.”

Institutionalized racism continues to leave many minorities feeling estranged, creating life-long effects. The future leaders of the next generation shouldn’t be taught that it’s acceptable to treat others differently based on how they look, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the stereotype is. Bold leaders promote compassion and acceptance.

A student’s academic life—whether education extends beyond high school or college—is a defining experience. It’s a time in which students are able to discover their passions, openly discuss their beliefs and ultimately be themselves. Especially in the state America is in right now, there needs to be more compassion; isolation essentially creates a regressive society.

Strong nations build bridges, not exclude individuals based on superficial factors, like what they look like or what ethnicity they are. Allowing institutionalized racism to persist would be a crime against students of color and America as a whole.

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